Tuesday, May 30, 2017

SETI and the drive to contact intelligent life

I've been reading lots of papers in space ethics. One of the early texts is Beyond Spaceship Earth: Environmental Ethics and the Solar System, a collection of conference proceedings edited by Eugene Hargrove and published in 1986. It includes a wide-ranging paper by J. Baird Callicott. Among Callicott's criticisms of space fans in general is this comment on SETI in particular:
In the face of this sort of giddy enthusiasm for communicating with "intelligent life" on other planets, it is both sobering and irritating to observe that those involved in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, have not first established—as a kind of preliminary benchmark or data base, so that they would have some idea of what communicating with an exotic intelligence would be like—communication with nonhuman forms of intelligent life on Earth. Cetaceans carry the biggest brains on this planet, with richly fissured cerebral cortexes and a brain-to-body weight ratio comparable to that of humans. Like us they are social mammals. But they live in an environment, relatively speaking, very different from ours. Hence, theirs is a world apart from ours, a terrestrial analog of an extraterrestrial environment. And they engage, apparently, in complex vocal communication, of which we to date understand not one word—or rather click, grunt, or whistle. What this omission reveals is not only an arrogant disregard for nonhuman terrestrial intelligence; it also clearly shows that by "extraterrestrial intelligence" those involved in SETI mean something very like, if not identical to, human intelligence.

--Callicott, “Moral Considerability and Extraterrestrial Life”

 Exactly so. This point was later taken up in a characteristically excellent short story by Ted Chiang, "The Great Silence" (2015). Callicott tends toward anger; Chiang tends toward heartbreak. Both are appropriate responses to human refusal to value the Earth's animals.

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